At UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater, Fri., Feb. 16. Shows through Feb. 25.
The World of Extreme Happiness is probably not the only show to open with a scene of childbirth, but when the living baby gets thrown into a garbage pail, you know you’re not in paradise. Despite the play’s title, contemporary China as depicted here may qualify as extreme, but it rarely achieves happiness, at least not for long. The baby’s daddy, Li Han (Andrew Truong) does save her from the trash on account of her smile, but Sunny Li (Lilian Young) leads a life that belies her optimistic name. Born in a poor rural village, she follows her fortune to Shenzhen, the massive manufacturing city that has sprung up in recent decades on the outskirts of Hong Kong. The subject of this remarkably ambitious play, which has already been produced in Chicago, New York, Seattle, and London, is nothing less than the Chinese Dream, a favorite talking point of Xi Jinping and the motivating factor behind China’s great internal migration, which has seen approximately 150 million people, mostly rural peasants, leave their homes and move to the urban centers on the country’s east coast.
As directed by Daniel Stein and designed by Jen LaMastra (costumes), Greg Mitchell (scenery), and Vickie J. Scott (lighting), this production excels at giving the talented UCSB students who make up the main cast and ensemble interesting things to do. From the long metal and wooden poles that serve a variety of purposes to the newspapers that magically become chickens and cooing pigeons, the theater in the round teems with activity. Even the show’s score emerges primarily from the mouths and hands of the white-clad ensemble, which hums, rustles, and chirps throughout the evening. Fans of immersive, nontraditional theater technique will find much to admire in this inventive staging.
The lead performances resonate strongly, both with the material and with the young actors, who clearly understand and empathize with the mostly desperate characters. As Sunny, Young manages to convey both wide-eyed innocence and steely determination. Other outstanding turns include Katrina Cleave in the dual roles of Ming Ming and Xiao Li, Jazmine Bang as Artemis and Wang Hua, and Oliver Rubey as Old Lao, Gao Chen, and Mr. Destiny, a wild take on the Chinese fascination with American-style self-help gurus. The complicated plot finds Sunny doing whatever she deems necessary to transcend her position as a janitor in one of Shenzhen’s many office buildings. From doling out sexual favors to attending self-help workshops, Sunny shows relentless initiative. When her bosses James Lin (Martin Wang) and Artemis choose her to represent the happy peasant stereotype in a publicity gambit designed to offset the negative impact of worker suicides, Sunny suddenly develops a conscience and strikes back at the system that has degraded her and the other rural workers who have come to the big city seeking a better life.
Although there’s precious little subtlety in this script, which overflows with obscenities and coarse remarks, particularly toward women, the subjects it addresses matter, and American audiences may learn from its excoriating take on contemporary Chinese urban life. For the UCSB students in the cast, it’s a fantastic opportunity to step into the shoes of real people who, living far away, nevertheless cast a shadow on the world we live in here and now.